Katherine Buskariol chats to Seekae about being part of the electronica revolution that’s taken the Australian music scene by storm.
When I suggest to John Hassell that his band is leading Australia’s electronic music revolution, he flat out disagrees. “There were loads of artists before us doing it,” he insists. “We were just heaps lucky.”
It’s a pretty modest response from a guy who makes up one third of Seekae, the Sydney-based electronic music trio who have released two albums, sold out a show at the Sydney Opera House, and just finished an Australian tour. And when you think about what’s going on at the moment in the local music scene, it’s hard to see where luck comes into it at all.
Seekae are just one of thousands of musical acts that are contributing to one of the biggest transitions the music industry has ever seen – the move away from traditional four-piece bands and towards electronic bedroom producers. It’s a move so huge that I have to say ‘acts’ instead of ‘bands’ because most of the artists are individuals, and hardly any can actually play instruments. Instead of drums, they use pads. Instead of a singer, they use vocal samples. Instead of a studio, they use Ableton. Gone are the good ol’ days when you’d have to spend years and your life savings taking guitar lessons, forming a band and recording demo CDs. No longer do you have to wait for the day that you’ll be discovered by a talent scout, signed to a record label and become world famous. Now you can play every instrument imaginable on your own computer and send your music around the world with just a Facebook share.
That’s not to say that Seekae know nothing of the acoustic world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Hassell and fellow band mate Alex Cameron were high school friends who played in an indie rock band together. When they ran into Alex’s primary school friend George Nicholas at a schoolies wet t-shirt competition (no joke), the trio became complete. The three friends discovered their mutual appreciation of electronica, swapped their guitars for MPC samplers and microKORGs, and jumped on the – what was then relatively new –bandwagon of electronic music. “It was just this whole new kind of music and I didn’t know how it was made, or how I could make it, and I think that’s part of what attracted me to it,” Hassell reminisces. “And I’m sure it was the same for Alex and George.”
Five years on from the release of their first album, The Sound of Trees Falling on People, the wheels of that metaphorical bandwagon, or ‘act’ wagon, are now groaning under the weight of its load. “There’s been this huge influx of people who for ages had been sitting in their bedrooms writing tracks which nobody had heard but themselves,” explains Hassell. “And now suddenly they’re getting it out there. It’s kind of happening all over the place, but definitely in Australia, in Sydney. I think it’s because that music is so much more accessible to make now. A lot of people have computers and can just sit at home and do their own thing.”
He’s not wrong. Just ten years ago, only ten percent of the Triple J Hottest 100 list was electronic songs, compared to almost a third of the list last year. So with an increasing fanbase and such an explosion of up-and-coming bedroom producers flooding the local music scene, how does Seekae stay on top? “I think that once you saturate the market with loads of bedroom producers, the ones that stand out and are successful are the ones that make the best music,” says Hassell, effectively negating his previous claim of simply being lucky.
Hassell says that it’s live performance that demonstrates the true quality of an electronic act. “We’re making sure we’re playing instruments live, having singing now and stuff like that,” he explains. “We love electronic music and we do it very much the same as a lot of bedroom producers, but we want to make the show a bit more hands-on, for our audience but also for ourselves, and hopefully that’s something that makes us stand out from the rest.”
And stand out they have. The first time I saw Seekae perform, they were headlining at last year’s Vivid Sydney festival. The Opera House was filled with fans who had listened to their second album, +Dome, and were curious to see how their glitchy electronica would translate live on stage. We all sat, unsure of what to expect. And then they pulled out an eight-piece string section. The way the harsh, digital sounds were softened by the living, breathing symphony was something I’d never heard before. And then, for the first time, Seekae introduced vocals to their music. I danced as much as the confines of my seat would let me. At the FBI Turns 10 bash, there were no seats. There were, however, 8,000 people dancing to Seekae in unison, packed into Carriageworks for the heaving party. After all, the community radio station has a lot to celebrate. FBi is the first radio station to play fifty percent Australian music, half of which comes from Sydney. And with the boom in bedroom producers, they have played a huge role in supporting young, local musicians, conducting the quality control that separates acts like Seekae from the rest.
Back in May 2008, FBi Radio named The Sound of Trees Falling on People ‘album of the week’, and heralded Seekae as the best live act of 2009. Their support of local music has not gone unnoticed, with Seekae and other Aussie heavyweights like The Presets, Hermitude and Urthboy reciprocating the love by waiving their usual fees to play for a good cause. The festival doubled as a fundraiser to help FBi to continue to support local music, art and culture. And after all, that’s exactly why FBi was started in the first place. Back in 2003, when FBi finally won its eight-year battle for a broadcasting license, the station’s General Manager, Chrisina Alvarez, made clear exactly what they stood for. “FBi will be for people who are really into good music, arts and culture, and want to be engaged with what’s happening in Sydney,” she said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. And that vision continues to be fulfilled, with more artists than ever getting their start at FBI.
Ultimately, it means that acts such as Seekae are finding unexpected success, with their third album set for release in early 2014. So what can we expect from the new record? Well, according to John, fans will be hearing live strings, brass, woodwind, and vocals from Alex – and of course, they won’t be deprived of Seekae’s electronic roots. “ It’s been quite a different path than I thought we would ever take,” says John thoughtfully. “But still – it’s been great!”